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page, that the powers of Hogarth, as a painter, the grandeur of Wilson, and the admirable rural scenery, cattle, and rustic English figures by Gainsborough, the grave historical nobleness and simple dignity of West's invention, were misunderstood and despised. The popular branch of painting engrossed the attention of the literature, the press, and of the fashionable world; and the anti-historical spirit, bred by the great national obstacle, would hardly permit a word of praise to any picture but a portrait. Painting was merely considered a seductive show, or as the gilding of a decorated apartment. Even among the better informed amateurs, the witcheries of colour, and of light and shadow, splendid harmony, and ricbness of effect, freedom of penciling, delicacies of touch, and a tasteful disposition, depending chiefly upon linear elegance, were prized as the chief merits of the art. The most extravagant praises and the highest bonours were lavished upon technical merits which lay upon the SURFACE; were chiefly calculated to appeal to the eye, and might be termed the art-magic of the hand. We are warranted by the picture, by public documents, dates, and indisputable facts, in stating, as an act of justice, that no such picture as the Agrippina, in elevation of subject, dignified treatment, purity of design, drawing, and costume, had ever before been executed by a British artist. The Agrippina was not only, in these respects, above all contemporary art, but we have Sir ThoMAS LAWRENCE's estimate, that it was unequalled by any of the painters upon the continent since the school of the CARACCI, that is, for two hundred years. We, as confidently affirm, that no such elevated historical subject was painted by any British artist for some years afterwards, except by West: and during the ensuing fifty years, West continued to produce pictures of equal worth. (Hoare's Epochs of Art.) The artist who had the manliness, during so long a life, to make almost a solitary stand against the old national evil, the church exclusion of pictures, and against the bad taste of the time, must bave possessed enthusiastic attachment to his art, great firmness of mind, high moral dignity, and disinterestedness. The British painter who, by the generous devotion of his pencil to the noblest aim of bis profession first brought British painting into direct association with the THRONE, and raised it into an object of national honour and importance in the mind of his SOVEREIGN, rendered the Britisb school a service of incalculable importance. For this service the British artists and their country are indebted to West, and this is the crisis when they are bound to manifest their gratitude.
The chief share which Mr. West had in inducing his late Majesty 10 found the Royal Academy, and to take the British School under his special protection and gracious patronage, forms another claim upon the gratitude of his professional brethren and of the public. His aversion to intrigue, and his straight-forward sincerity, were evinced by bis having so disinterestedly canvassed for the election of Reynolds, although the dignity of President, lay, as it were, within his own reach, from his powers as the first eminent historical painter of the age, from the personal favour in which he stood with the King, and from the known indisposition of the artists to elect Reynolds. The painters having elected Lambert, Hayman, and Kirby, from 1760 to 1768, and the difference between them and Reynolds, leave no doubt that if West had been of an ambitious turn, and had availed himself of his just claims, as the painter of Agrippina and his other historical pictures, or bad made use of bis interest with the Archbishop of York, and the King, he might have procured his own election with less trouble, and infinitely with more justice, than either Lambert, Hayman, or Kirby. Their elections passed without noise or opposition : why should not bis ? To this rare instance of self-denial in this mild and amiable man, his great contemporary, Reynolds, was indebted for his election to the rank of President, which produced his knighthood; and the world is indebted to the same primary cause for the golden Discourses of Reynolds. Barry, in bis letter to the Diletanti Society, has intimated his opinion, that his rank as President was a chief cause of Reynolds’s few noble exertions in history late in life. We will not determine this point; but the fact is certain, that Reynolds's first historic attempt, The UGOLINO, was not finished nor exhibited until 1773, when he was in the fiftieth year of his age, and nearly five years after he had been elected President of the Royal Academy. On a view of the several circumstances last mentioned, it becomes a question, whether any other British artist has been more influential in advancing the interests of the British School, and raising it into dignified estimation, than WEST. The main spring of all was the Agrippina.
In addition to these meritorious claims, his having sustained the character of historical painting during half a century, in which he was almost a solitary instance of adherence to that unpopular department, is another title to esteem and regard. There can be no doubt but that he could have made much more than his allowance of £1000. a year from the King's privy purse, if he had complied with the taste of the times, and painted portraits. There are twenty portrait painters in London now, for one portrait painter then in the metropolis, and whoever started with talents, was sure of a fashionable run of business, as it has been termed. Romney, and even Liotard, each in their turn, divided the patronage of the town with Reynolds. Romney had a craving wish to obtain distinction as a painter of history, but the great national obstacle, the church exclu-. sion of pictures, stared him in the face, and intimidated him from the attempt. FUSELI, bis eloquent biographer, tbus bears testimony to his passion for fame, and the appalling spirit which turned him from his purpose.—“ His residence at Rome was distinguished by assiduous and solitary study, and at his return he seemed inclined TO DEVOTE HIMSELF ENNRELY TO HISTORIC PAINTING; but the opinions of his friends, his own fears, and the taste of the public, soon determined him to abandon that pursuit, and the unprofitable visions of Michelangiolo and Shakspeare, soon gave way to the more substantial allurements of portrait ; his rooms were now thronged with nobles, esquires, ministers, the elegantes, the belles, and literati of the day, and he divided the tribute of fashion with Reynolds and Gainsborough.” In this pursuit, for a considerable period, he cleared from 3 to £4000. a year, and retired in 1799, in his 64th year, “ weak and opulent,” to Kendal. From our impartial view of the circumstances and taste of the times, and of West's facility in catching a likeness, and painting a portrait, we have no doubt that if he had listened to fears, and the advice of his friends, like Ronrney, he would have had his rooms thronged with fashionable sitters, and would have realised a noble independent fortune long before he had reached bis 82d year. If we average his probable income by portraits even so low as £2000. a year, he must have sacrificed fifty or sixty thousand pounds in his fifty-six years practice, from 1764 to 1820, by his heroic and constant attachment to bis. torical painting. As the cultivation of historical painting is now acknowledged, and has been formally declared by the
Government, the Parliament, and the British Institution, to be an object of essential importance to the national improvement and glory, we may, on fair and undeniable grounds affirm, that the painter, who for fifty-six years kept alive tbe sacred flame of that sublime art in this country, and sacrificed a noble income by so doing, can never, with any consistency or honourable feeling, be remembered or spoken of but as a GREAT PUBLIC BENEFACTOR.
From 1746 to 1773, Reynolds, with an bonourable ambition of professional famé, and a public-spirited desire of raising his art in the estimation of his country, was anxious to paint history; but, from the benighted state of the public mind, owing to the confirmed effect of the great national obstacle, he deemed it more prudent and profitable to comply with the taste of the times, and to paint the article in daily demand. He considered himself to be walled out of the bistorical field. In 1816, SIR THOMAS LAWRENCE, before the Committee on the Elgin Marbles, with great nobleness and candour owned, that he also wished to paint history, but that he had seldom done so. Here again, the appalling national obstacle, crying, as it were, aloud, no commission! no purchaser! no market! repressed the exertions of genius, and
“ Froze the genial current of the soul.”' Where church exclusion has thus, in the mind's eye, written in black and dismal letters over the door of every student of history painting,
“ The Road to Ruin," we are pot to be surprised that so many men of high spirit and great genius have been deterred from the practice, by the dread of public neglect, poverty, disgrace, and a prison; but we may hope, in the wisdom of Government, that